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Ex-case manager questions effectiveness of bill to help protect Indian children

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- A former case manager for Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services is criticizing legislation meant to strengthen protection for Native American children within the tribal foster care system as being “just more red tape.”

The legislation, introduced by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., would require background checks for all adults living in a potential foster home before a tribal court could place a child in the home.

Don Canton, press secretary for Hoeven, said the bill, called the Native American Children’s Safety Act, was a response to past problems at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Betty Jo Krenz, a former case manager for Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services, said the bill does not address the ongoing problem of child abuse on the reservation.

“There needs to be more transparency to everything that goes on there,” she said. “The whole jurisdictional issue, the sovereignty issue needs to be set aside for the children’s sake.”

Krenz was terminated from her position at Spirit Lake in June 2011, after bringing problems of child abuse to light on the reservation. She maintains that children are still in danger on the reservation.

“My biggest concern is there will be more kids popping up from this train wreck,” she said.

The FBI is investigating the death of an infant who died in Tokio, N.D., on April 25.

Tribal Chairman Russ McDonald called the legislation a move in the right direction.

“We’re not the only tribe in this situation, but we’re the one that got to be in the media,” he said. “When this came out, we were on board to support it. We can see where it will help.”

Molly McDonald, former assistant juvenile court justice at Spirit Lake, said any assistance the Native American Children’s Safety Act would bring is not enough.

“It does help the issue, but so much more is going on,” she said. “It doesn’t do everything that’s needed. There are still kids in danger.”

Krenz said she did not see the legislation as any real solution.

“The Hoeven bill is just more red tape,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Justice has not taken a formal stance on the bill. Wyn Hornbuckle, public affairs specialist for the department, said the bill is under review to see if it fits within the agency’s goal of protecting native children from violence and abuse.

Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said safety of Native American children is a priority.

“The DOJ and my office are committed to public safety and seeking justice for kids is very important,” he said. “We are committed to making reservations safer and seeking justice.”

Purdon said the safety of children needs to start on the reservation, not in a federal courtroom.

“This comes to us after things have gone horribly wrong,” he said. “Another reason is a social services agency that is not operating at 100 percent.”

Purdon said he has assigned a prosecutor to each reservation in North Dakota. They work with a multi-agency team made up of the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal social services and tribal officials.

“For me and my office this is an important situation,” he said. “The processes are much more robust at Spirit Lake.”

Purdon said the BIA has operated the social services agency at Spirit Lake since Oct. 1, 2012.

McDonald said the tribe is partnering with state and federal agencies to try to address child safety on the reservation. He said the process is slow because both the tribe and federal government are bureaucracies.

“We’re to a point now we’re seeing fruits of our labor,” he said. “Because we took time to do planning, it helps us to build a foundation for something.”

Krenz points to the case of Laurynn Whiteshield as proof that the changes have been ineffective.

Laurynn, 3, had been housed at a foster home in Bismarck before being returned to the reservation. She was killed by a relative on June 12, 2013. Hope Whiteshield, 31, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in the case.

Purdon said the situation is improving.

“The idea that public safety on a reservation is not the same priority as Bismarck is wrong,” he said. “We have made progress on the reservations. Prosecutions are up over 50 percent in charges of violent crime in Indian Country.”

Krenz said she doesn’t see any improvement in the situation.

“While all this is taking place children are dying,” she said. “Real kids dying while we play government games. They need to treat kids there like they were in Jamestown. Get over this racism business and treat them like kids.”